Bimonthly Column on Procedural Politics From "Roll Call"

Issues in this Series

Is Negotiating Political Agreement a Lost Art?

Donald Wolfensberger
A group of political scientists say Congress has forgotten the art of negotiating political agreements and needs to relearn it if our government is to continue to function as intended. Wolfensberger says in today's Congress, with all the distractions during shortened work weeks, simple deliberations are a difficult challenge for most members.

Congress’ Budgeting Would Baffle a Martian

Donald Wolfensberger
Congress passed its first budget in four years, but the twisted path it took to get there would baffle a Martian.

Can Senate De-Escalate Partisan Nuke Warfare?

Donald Wolfensberger
Senate majority party frustration over minority party obstruction could be taken to the extreme of shutting down minority participation and altering the character of the upper chamber. Some measured rules changes could help de-escalate current procedural warfare.

McConnell’s Lament Stirs Fresh Breeze of Hope

Donald Wolfensberger
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), in a floor speech January 8, lamented the sorry state of the Senate today, admitted that both parties are to blame for turning the chamber into a campaign studio, and promised to return to deliberative policy making body if Republicans regain majority control next year.

Czar Speaker Is Vindicated on Overthrow Ruling

Donald Wolfensberger
When the House of Representatives removed Speaker Joe Cannon as chairman of the Rules Committee in 1910, it did so by overturning his ruling that changing House rules from the floor is not a constitutional right. Before Cannon left office in 1911, the House reversed itself, perhaps in part because Democrats would be in the majority two months later. The tale is a cautionary one for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who recently changed Senate filibuster rules.

Senate Leader Reid’s Rule Recalls House Czar Speaker Reed

Donald Wolfensberger
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s unilateral procedural maneuver to effectively change Senate filibuster rules on presidential nominations, resembled the actions of Republican House Speaker Thomas Reed in 1890 to eliminated minority party obstruction. Both moves met with heavy resistance from the minority party.

Ideology Isn’t Source of All Partisanship

Donald Wolfensberger
Ideological differences in Congress do not account for all of the hyperpartisanship. Sometimes parties draw the lines simply to advance their electoral interests.

Are Committed Ideologues Making Governing Impossible?

Donald Wolfensberger
Neither political ideology nor electoral concerns are solely responsible for paralyzing polarization in Congress. Both are, combined with divided party government and fragile majorities in both houses that could flip at the next election.

Congress Takes Recess From Pro Formas

Donald Wolfensberger
So far this Congress has been spared the brief “pro forma” sessions used to block presidential recess appointments in previous Congresses. Both parties have done it to prevent a president of the other party from filling judicial or executive branch vacancies while Congress is away. A recent court decision however, may change all that.

Filibusters Sometimes Serve Purposes

Donald Wolfensberger
Senate filibusters have long been a target of congressional reformers, though as much as the Senate might tweak the rules, they are unlikely to give up this valuable right of the minority to talk. And sometimes talking does build support for an issue.

Rubber-Band Politics' Snapback Sting

Donald Wolfensberger
Sometimes Congress’s budget gimmicks snap back and sting. Sequestration (or across the board spending cuts) wasn’t supposed to happen, but something snapped, and everyone got stung.

Process Gimmicks Can't Replace Policymaking

Donald Wolfensberger
It is often said that process is policy; that he who makes the rules controls policy outcomes. But in recent years, process has often been used to avoid tough policy choices, especially when it comes to getting government spending under control, writes Don Wolfensberger.

New House Adopts Its Rules in the Dark

Donald Wolfensberger
The adoption of House rules on the opening day of a new Congress is a perfunctory and partisan exercise that gets little attention. It hasn't always been that way, writes Don Wolfensberger.

VPs Hold Key on Filibuster Change

Donald Wolfensberger
The Senate will decide in January whether it wants to change its filibuster rule. How it is done could usher in either a constitutional nirvana or a nuclear winter.

Lame Ducks Seldom Become Mighty Ducks

Donald Wolfensberger
Post-election sessions of Congress are usually unproductive and unpredictable. And yet lame-duck sessions have been held in nine of the last ten Congresses, counting this one. It’s a sign of Congress’s growing propensity to procrastinate on even its most routine business. This time the so-called “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax cuts and across-the-board spending cuts threatens another recession if Congress doesn’t act.

Fast-Track Funding Bills Always Hard to Derail

Donald Wolfensberger
In a rare show of bipartisanship, Congress agreed in October to fund the government for six more months rather than suffer the political consequences of a government shutdown. While outrage over the killing of U.S. personnel in Libya threatened to derail the agreeement, pressures to adjourn for election campaigns prevailed.

Policy Gridlock: Is It the New Regular Order?

Donald Wolfensberger
Is the dysfunction and policy gridlock in government simply a product of our polarized country politically, or a deeper symptom of a changing culture in Congress aimed more at gaining and holding political power than in producing good public policy for the country. Don Wolfensberger sees more signs of the latter taking place.

House Tax Overhaul Process Divides Parties

Donald Wolfensberger
It’s unusual for Congress to plan in advance, but House Republicans have pushed through a bill to establish a process for considering comprehensive tax reform next year. Don Wolfensberger writes that the process is aimed more at blasting Senate obstruction and appealing to this fall’s electorate than to making a serious commitment to tax reform.

Contempt Charges Are Not Partisan Fodder

Donald Wolfensberger
While House Democrats charged Republicans with playing politics by forcing a contempt of Congress vote against Attorney General Eric Holder, and some Republican Members seemed too anxious to punish the Attorney General by pushing Speaker John Boehner for an earlier vote, Wolfensberger points out that neither party nor branch of government stands to gain politically from what is a complex interbranch dispute over documents related to the government’s botched Fast and Furious gun-walking operation in the southwest U.S.

Congressional Staffers Play Quiet, Vital Role

Donald Wolfensberger
Wolfensberger praises the Stennis Center’s Congressional Fellows Program that has trained some 240 senior staff over the last two decades, for personifying the extraordinary quality and character of the young people who assist House and Senate Members in carrying out their duties.

In Blaming Republicans, Authors Miss the Point

Donald Wolfensberger
Two prominent political scientists claim Republicans are principally to blame for Washington’s dysfunction because they are more extreme and less inclined to compromise. In this article, Don Wolfensberger notes Congress has been just as dysfunctional under Democratic majorities and the fault lies in the increasing polarization between the parties and the imperatives of “the permanent campaign” to hold on to power by shaping legislation for political purposes rather than finding common ground in the national interest.

Incivility May Be Down, but ‘Uncivility’ Persists

Donald Wolfensberger
A recent study credits Congresses of the last decade as being more civil than their predecessors in the 1990s. However, the study is based on the narrow metric of how often House Members are called to order for uttering unparliamentary language questioning the character of a colleague. Wolfensberger maintains that such acts of incivility may be down but the “uncivility” of depersonalizing and ignoring Members of the other party is on the upswing.

Parliamentarians Hold Unruly House Together

Donald Wolfensberger
The retirement of House Parliamentarian John Sullivan drew tributes from both House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi on the importance of the Office of Parliamentarian in holding the House together, and the special qualities required for the postion, chief among them, the ability to withstand extreme pressures in one of politics’ biggest pressure cookers.

Revisiting the Budget Control Act Is Inevitable

Donald Wolfensberger
The dispute this spring between the House and Senate over whether a congressional budget resolution is even necessary this year highlights difficulties down the road as the two houses weigh-in with widely divergent spending numbers writes Don Wolfensberger in Roll Call.

Taking Stock of House-Senate Differences

Donald Wolfensberger
I am often asked about the differences between the House and Senate. Sometimes I jokingly respond, “Do you have another hour?” However, some political scientists make the case that the two bodies have become more alike.

Obama’s Reorganization Plan Faces Long Odds

Donald Wolfensberger
President Obama is asking Congress to renew a fast-track government reorganization process that expired in 1984. He would first use the process to submit a plan to consolidate various trade-related agencies and functions in a newly name and reconfigured Commerce Department. Congress is leery of giving presidents carte blanch authority to get an up-or-down vote on their plans, especially under divided party government. There is nothing to prevent Congress from using the normal legislative process to deliberate and amend the president’s reorganization proposals.

President’s ‘Recess’ Picks Set Dangerous Path

Donald Wolfensberger
President Barack Obama made a controversial move in early January by making four recess appointments to fill vacancies in top government positions, even though Congress was intentionally avoiding long recesses to block such a move. While the recess ploy may score political points by highlighting Senate delays in approving nominations, it is straining constitutional bounds and inter-branch relations.

Flurry of Budget Process Reforms Blanket House

Donald Wolfensberger
The House of Representatives is considering a spurt of budget process reform bills this month. While it has been pegged by House Republican leaders to the Democratic Senate’s failure to produce a budget resolution over the last three years, it is also a useful exercise in better educating Members on the process—even if the pieces don’t all fit together at this point.

Congress Left for Recess on Temporary Miracle

Donald Wolfensberger
Congress completed work on an important piece of legislation Dec. 23 after most Members had already left town for the holidays. In his column, Don Wolfensberger describes this immaculate conception of a public law as a temporary Christmas miracle with a very short half-life since it will have to be revisited in February.

Deficit Panel’s Failure Reflects Ambivalent Public Mood

Donald Wolfensberger
While there has been a lot of finger-pointing in Congress over who is to blame for the failure of the joint committee on deficit reduction, the American people are ultimately to blame for their ambivalence about increasing taxes and lowering government entitlement benefits. That mood is reflected in the stalemate among parties and Members over how to tackle the debt problem. Congress is a representative body and right now it is representing the reluctance of the people they represent to elevate deficit reduction over jobs and the economy. Read more from Don Wolfensberger's latest article from Roll Call's Procedural Politics column.

Balanced Budget Proposal Tilts on Procedure

Donald Wolfensberger
Part of the debt limit deal last August was a provision mandating that both Houses vote on an amendment to the Constitution to require a balanced budget each year. When the House Judiciary Committee reported a version that required a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, House Republicans reversed the committee in favor a simple majority vote to attract Democrats. In this article from Roll Call's Procedural Politics column, Don Wolfensberger comments that while the procedural acrobatics to make this change were complicated, they still left the amendment short of the two-thirds vote needed for constitutional amendments.

Weak Committees Empower the Partisans

Donald Wolfensberger
Over the last three decades majority parties in Congress have come to dominate the policy agenda, often at the expense of committees and deliberative lawmaking. In this article from Roll Call's Procedural Politics column, Wolfensberger finds evidence of this power shift in the growing prominence of leadership staff over committee staff and in the number of unreported bills given major status by the party leaders.

Harry Reid’s Nuclear Test Benefits President, for Now

Donald Wolfensberger
The President and Congress may agree the message should be “jobs, jobs, jobs,” but how they actually translate that into workable legislative programs is another matter. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid even conducted a procedural nuclear test to block Senate Republicans from forcing an early and predictably embarrassing vote on the President’s jobs package.

A Debate Worth Having on Emergency Offsets

Donald Wolfensberger
Hopeful budget watchers predicted that Congress would have fairly smooth fiscal sailing now that statutory spending caps are in place. That obviously underestimates the ability of Members to whip up their own squalls.

A Better Way to Fund the Government on Time

Donald Wolfensberger
Congress will not celebrate fiscal new year’s eve Sept. 30. That’s because: (a) it will not be in town; and (b) it will have nothing to celebrate.

Mixed Records of Success for Joint Committees

Donald Wolfensberger
If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, is a duck-billed platypus a duck conceived by a bipartisan, joint committee of Congress? We may soon know, as the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction is mandated to report additional budget savings of at least $1.5 trillion over the next decade by Nov. 23.

Debt Deal Shows How Process Becomes Policy

Donald Wolfensberger
If you got the impression during the debt limit imbroglio that our leaders were creatively trying to extricate themselves from a box of their own making, you’ve been cribbing from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s manual: Crises (fabricated or not) can advance worthy goals—even restoring fiscal sanity. It’s getting there that sometimes seems insane.

Libya Motivates Members to Rally Together

Donald Wolfensberger
When Hillary Clinton was told June 22 that House Republicans were scheduling two votes on Libya later that week, she reportedly asked, “Whose side are they on?” If that sounds reminiscent of a president telling other nations, “You’re either with us or against us,” welcome to the world of war rhetoric.

Democrats' Ethics Tactics Trigger Republican Backlash

March 31, 2008 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

How Do Presidential Campaigns Affect Capitol Hill Agendas?

March 17, 2008 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Rules Panel Sends Half-Baked Ethics Idea Back to Kitchen

March 3, 2008 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

President's Disputed Pocket Veto Yields Quick Compromise

February 11, 2008 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Procedural Exit Strategy Uses Divide and Conquer Approach

January 7, 2008 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Ditched Minibus Money Bill Paves Way for Massive Omnibus

December 10, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

SCHIP Sails Irregular Course Through Congressional Waters

November 26, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Minority's Motion to Recommit Should Not Be Curtailed

November 12, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

A Veto Override Vote Is Not Always an Overriding Priority

October 29, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Congress Should Not Censor Citizen Speech

October 15, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Incivility Is Symptom of Larger Problem on Capitol Hill

October 1, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Constitution Day and Congress' War Powers

September 17, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Is the Senate Germane? Majority Leader Reid's Lament

August 13, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Privilege Claim Not New; Congress Still Holds the Cards

July 30, 2007By Don WolfensbergerRoll Call Contributing Writer

Changing Iraq Strategies Reflect Power Shift to House Leadership

July 16, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

How Much Did the Yanks Really Split From the Brits in 1776?

July 2, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Earmarking Pigs in Conference Poke Was Not the Way to Go

June 18, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

‘Vote Pummeling' Can Soften Majority's Hard Line in House

June 4, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Trade Promotion Authority on Slow Track to Renewal

May 7, 2007 By Don WolfensbergerRoll Call Contributing Writer

Previous Questions' Fights Dramatize Minority's Plight

May 21, 2007 By Don WolfensbergerRoll Call Staff

Democrats' D.C. Vote Fix Backfires in Gun Law Blowup

April 9, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Has Our Legislative Branch Lost Its Institutional Bearings?

March 26, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Congress Is Always Reluctant to End Wars Unilaterally

March 12, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Iraq Irresolution Produces Procedural Pandemonium

February 26, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Role of Minority Party: Remain Positive, Relevant and Engaged

February 12, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Select Panels Offer Speakers Additional Powers and Pitfalls

January 29, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Congress Should Police Itself on Ethics Violations

January 16, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Key to New House Is Often Lost in Opening Day Hoopla

January 4, 2007 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

First Test of the New Majority: Choosing Rules Wisely

December 4, 2006 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Will Democrats' Timetable Trump ‘Regular Order' Pledge?

November 20, 2006 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Will We Get the Government We Want Today?

November 7, 2006 By Don WolfensbergerRoll Call Contributing Writer

Vice President's Role in Senate Is Occasionally Critical

October 24, 2006 By Don WolfensbergerRoll Call Contributing Writer

What Difference Will It Make if Lobby Reforms Wait Until '07?

October 10, 2006 By Don WolfensbergerRoll Call Contributing Writer

Line-Item Veto Would Expedite a Rescission Collision

May 1, 2006By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Omnibus Spending Bills Portend Ominous Consequences

September 25, 2006 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Minimum Wage Gyrations a Replay of 1996 Game Plans

September 11, 2006By Donald WolfensbergerRoll Call Contributing Writer

The Problem Isn't Signing Statements; It's Enforcing the Laws

August 14, 2006By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

House Threatens Blue Slip in the Face of the Senate

July 31, 2006By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

LaHood's Lament Deserves Assent on Recommit Motion

July 17, 2006 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Procedural Plotting Joined Paul Revere on Road to Independence

July 3, 2006 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

House Executes Deliberation With Special Rules

June 19, 2006 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

FBI Raid Breaches Constitutional Wall Built by the Founders

June 5, 2006 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Upon Further Review, Senate Censure Makes No Sense, Sir

May 15, 2006 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Take a Peek Into the Sausage Factory's Pork Division

April 17, 2006 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer

Of Mavericks and Raiders: Studying the Process-Policy Nexus

April 3, 2006 By Don Wolfensberger,Roll Call Contributing Writer